On a drizzly evening in January, about 25 people, many unfamiliar with one another, sit around a long conference table in an upstairs office at Con-way Inc. headquarters in Northwest Portland.
Most in the room live or work close to the trucking company’s property. Some are members of the neighborhood association, others represent various local businesses and nonprofits.
Craig Boretz, Con-way vice president of corporate development, has just finished a private presentation of a slide show of what he calls “an early stage master plan” for a development on Con-way’s parking lot-dominated property in Northwest Portland.
And early stage it is, with few of the architectural or planning details that will, in the end, determine the project’s success or failure.
But the vision that Boretz and project designer John Spencer have created is bold enough that even without detail, it begs reaction.
Northwest Raleigh Street has become a canal, modeled after similar thoroughfares in Amsterdam. Streetcar lines pass through the development. A public plaza leads into a series of tall buildings at the development’s center. The artist’s renderings appear to show an entire neighborhood built from the ground up.
The Con-way plan is bold and ambitious. It also, many in the city believe, represents a litmus test for the city’s commitment to urban density. It includes residential towers taller than any building in the Pearl District, along with parks and a community center.
Boretz and Spencer talk about affordable family housing and open spaces, greenway corridors for pedestrians and bicyclists, possibly even a neighborhoodwide heating and cooling system that could be more efficient than individual building systems.
But there is a trade-off, Boretz explains, and that is density.
Low-density housing – such as a collection of townhouses – is not financially feasible, he says. It won’t bring in enough revenue to cover what may be as much as $50 million just to put in below-ground parking, much of it for the 1,000 Con-way employees who work in the company’s two office buildings.
It won’t pay the bills for the public spaces and the community center that won’t yield any revenue at all for Con-way.
What would help pay for all that is what Con-way is proposing: thousands of housing units, many of them in large condominium and apartment buildings, possibly adding between 4,000 and 5,000 new residents to Northwest Portland’s current population of 12,000.
The lights in the room brighten and no more than a few seconds pass before Greg Theisen, vice chairman of the planning committee for the neighborhood association, offers the first reaction.
“I’m a little shocked,” Theisen says. “This is much more than I ever thought I’d see here.”
Kim Carlson, chairwoman of the neighborhood association transportation committee, warns Boretz that he should expect some “pushback” from neighborhood residents concerned about increased traffic.
At meeting’s end Boretz is asked when the public will be shown this master plan, and he says February or March. That public presentation has not been held yet, and it has not been scheduled yet. In fact, the renderings of the plan that were shown in January are no longer available for viewing.
Instead, the Con-way team has been making presentations to a number of neighborhood groups and governmental agencies, but without the slides.
Portland has seen a number of large-scale developments in recent years. But the Con-way project, on the largest undeveloped piece of property left in the central city, presents a crucible for the city’s commitment to density in a way the other developments could not.
South Waterfront is a neighborhood created from scratch. Its primary impact on the nearby Lair Hill area is the way it blocks views of Mount Hood.
The Pearl District rose from an abandoned rail yard. There was no backyard from which people there could shout that they didn’t want the development in theirs.
But the Con-way property, all 20 acres, is a bridge between the single-family homes off Northwest 23rd Avenue and the Pearl District. There are plenty of backyards from which people have started to say, “Not in mine.”
Board members of the Northwest District Association, probably the most vocal and mobilized neighborhood association in the city, already have begun to raise doubts about the Con-way vision.
And the initial protests over the Con-way plan have raised questions of another sort.
Planning, most experts agree, is what Portland does well. But big, bold designs? Not so much – possibly because they die in the planning process.
“The cautionary principle is very much alive in the DNA of Portland,” says Gil Kelley, director of the Portland Planning Bureau.
He lists bold project ideas that haven’t happened: Making underground Tanner Creek a free-flowing surface stream through the central city again, a Frank Gehry building proposed for the Pearl District that died for lack of funding, capping Interstate 405 and moving Interstate 5 away from the river on the east bank of the Willamette River – both plans abandoned for lack of money and civic will.
Kelley says Portland’s city government is open to big visions, but that the process of putting them into action has to involve dialogue with the public and city agencies. And he thinks those deliberations, in the end, benefit the city.
“There’s no reason boldness can’t occur here,” he says. “It just isn’t going to be the result of one developer walking in with a drawing and everybody bowing down. It might represent a little design by committee, but, generally, it has a truer fit.”
As for reaction to his initial talks with Con-way, Kelley says: “I had a mix of feelings. They’re at least pushing the envelope with some concepts.”
Peter Finley Fry, a planning consultant to developers, says the multiple layers of bureaucracy that have a say in how a proposed development looks makes bold visions nearly impossible in Portland. One reason, he says, is the process takes too much time.
“The trouble is our planning becomes a process of compromise,” Fry says. “You might start out with an exciting vision and people who had that vision will fade away and people afraid of that vision will stay put. And the planning bureau draft will dumb it down and the planning commission will make it further dumbed down.”
In Fry’s estimation, the biggest obstacles to bold, visionary design such as Con-way has proposed are Portland’s neighborhood associations.
“We artificially empower mediocrity,” he says. “There’s a certain proportion of people who have fear of change anywhere. In Portland, those people are empowered with authority through the neighborhood associations.”
Fry says that when he first saw a picture showing Con-way’s proposed canal street, “I loved it.” His second reaction, he says, was thinking that it is unlikely he’ll ever see it in the real world “because of the fundamental lack of leadership at the city level.”
Without strong leadership from the mayor’s office, Fry says, the fate of projects such as Con-way’s are left to the bureau of planning, which inevitably result in compromise.
John Spencer, a Portland urban designer who helped envision South Waterfront years before being hired to work on the Con-way project, disagrees with Fry. He calls South Waterfront bold, and says it was made possible because then-Mayor Vera Katz was willing to actively support it.
Spencer says his years as chairman of the city’s design commission convinced him that it isn’t the city that’s keeping more visionary design from occurring in Portland.
“I would hear from people that it was difficult, but I was on a committee that was encouraging architects and their development clients to act more boldly,” he says. “It was easier to design a building that played by the same rules as the last building that got approved, and that was the safest and most predictable way to go.”
But Fry argues that the city’s lengthy approval process encourages designers to take the safer route because they want their projects approved. “That’s just human nature,” he says.
Homer Williams, the developer who helped create the Pearl District and South Waterfront, says that with enough will and political capital, developers can put bold designs into place in Portland. But it’s hard, he says. And Con-way has taken a wrong first step, he believes.
By showing its preliminary master plan to groups with a stake in the development, including the neighborhood association, Con-way opened itself up for criticism before it was ready to deal with it, Williams says.
He says he learned from his experiences with the Pearl District and South Waterfront that he had to have agreements in place on specific pieces of developments before his plans went public.
With South Waterfront, he says, he secured commitments from Mayor Vera Katz and from Oregon Health & Science University on its investment in a campus that would be connected to its main campus by the tram. And those two weren’t the only ones with whom bargains were made.
“We got everybody around the table every Monday for months, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” Williams says. “PDOT, OHSU, PDC (the Portland Development Commission), (the) planning (bureau). We said, ‘OK, let’s make an agreement.’ ”
He says the parks bureau, for instance, wanted a greenway left along the Willamette River. In response, he and other developers agreed to give up the four acres of property along the river that is worth tens of millions of dollars.
In return, Williams says, the developers received commitments from the city for more height in South Waterfront buildings and more tax increment financing that made the Portland streetcar’s arrival in the new neighborhood possible. OHSU got its tram.
“It’s the only way to do it,” Williams says. “Let planning defend the plan. No developer can defend the plan. The developer has to be willing to take the bullets.”
But architect Jerry L. Ward, who lives within a mile of South Waterfront, says the fact that the neighborhood association as well as other property owners and public interest groups were not included in those early negotiations made the process unfair.
“The neighborhood association never knew about the heights (of South Waterfront towers) going to 325 feet until after all the amendments were signed and delivered,” Ward says.
Williams says he fears the Con-way plan, even with its green streets and sustainable design, is unlikely to successfully bridge the divide from vision to reality because criticism has begun and Con-way has no allies in place.
“I like the plan,” Williams says. “It was a bold plan. The minute they put that plan out to the public, I thought, this is going to be dead on arrival. It’s just sad.”
Boretz says he made a decision to include the public early, and he still thinks it was the right choice.
Specifically, Boretz says he didn’t want to follow the South Waterfront model.
“It wasn’t something I was comfortable doing – back room,” he says. “I just felt we needed to listen to what people were saying and respond to that in conceptual terms and not try to create special deals.”
Boretz says most of what he’s heard in response to his presentations has been positive, and that he’s not surprised at some neighborhood resistance.
“It may be because this is the first project I’ve worked on, but I don’t think it will be picked apart,” he says. “I think it is big enough and incorporates enough really good public benefit elements that it won’t get picked apart.”
But the key, Boretz says, will be solving the traffic problem. That’s why the master plan focuses on bike lanes and the streetcar, and why Con-way currently is drawing up a traffic study.
Boretz says he hopes Con-way employees live in some of the development’s housing. And maybe, he says, Con-way’s final design could change the way people in Portland think about traffic.
“I don’t know if this will be the development that will tip the scales, but people generally recognize they’ve got to find ways out of their cars,” he says.
Roger Vrilakas, a member of the neighborhood association planning committee, isn’t counting on people getting out of their cars. He thinks the Con-way development is going to lead to massive traffic jams in Northwest Portland.
He also says Con-way should not get the zoning variances that would be necessary to build its tall buildings and dense housing.
Vrilakas, who lives on Northwest Johnson Street, says he has heard all the arguments about inner-city density as the solution to suburban sprawl.
“Northwest Portland is already very dense,” he says. “If anybody has done their part in preventing suburban sprawl, it is certainly the people that live in Northwest. There is a point at which we need to start thinking about urban sprawl. Sprawl implies more and more and more. And that’s what they want – more. I want what everybody has agreed to. I don’t want more people, more cars, higher buildings.”
Vrilakas says Con-way possibly adding 2,000 housing units could mean a 40 percent increase in Northwest Portland’s population, and more drivers.
“Here’s a way to think of it,” he says. “Next time you’re in your car going down the street (in Northwest Portland), count 10 cars, and put four more in there. See if they fit.”
Juliet Hyams, president of the neighborhood association board, says there is not much support for the Con-way project among board members.
John Bradley, chairman of the neighborhood association planning committee, says he would like to see Con-way stick to current zoning designations with a variety of buildings, none taller than the currently allowed 140 feet.
But Carlson says she is “optimistic” that the neighborhood can find common ground with Con-way.
Carlson says she has seen the Con-way presentation at three showings, and she’s noticed it change in response to comments by board members, with one street that in the initial version of the plan was designated for automobile use later emphasizing bicycles and pedestrian use.
“This is a good problem to try to solve,” Carlson says. “We shouldn’t be whining about it. They can find friends in this neighborhood if there’s a little less presentation and more working together on it.”
There are plenty of people and institutions near the Con-way property who would like to work together with Con-way, and who are worried how the final project design could hurt them.
But small requests can be the undoing of bold vision, Fry says.
Parishioners from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, at the northeast corner of the Con-way property, have told Boretz they don’t want the church to end up in the shadow of tall Con-way buildings and they have asked that a small Con-way parcel behind the church – once a church school – be given back to the church.
Representatives of Food Front, the neighborhood’s longtime co-op, have told Boretz that they’d like to have a place as the new neighborhood’s grocery store – aware that if they don’t, and another grocer specializing in natural foods goes in, it could severely hurt the co-op.
Officials with nonprofit community center Friendly House would like to run the Con-way development’s new community center, and are afraid a competing community center could threaten Friendly House’s survival.
Tad Savinar owns two blocks of property a block north of the Con-way property that he hopes to develop, and is concerned that Con-way will develop first and in doing so will use up the infrastructure capacity of the area.
“The challenge of big-vision planning, to people who are adjacent to it, is that they have the horsepower to get to the finish line first,” says Savinar, who adds that much of the Con-way plan appeals to him. “My concern is, what happens if we want to build in 15 years? Will the transportation department say, ‘You can’t build because we’re already at capacity?’ ”
Savinar says he recently met with planning bureau officials who assured him he will be included in talks about the area’s growth.
Boretz says he recognizes the local neighborhood association will have some impact on the final design of the of the Con-way development, but he also knows he’s got an “economic engine” that won’t be easy for the city to put aside.
Con-way could spend between $1 billion and $2 billion in development costs over the next 10 to 15 years, Boretz says.
“That’s a lot of construction jobs and a lot of things that spin off those construction jobs,” Boretz says.
But the presentations Boretz makes now to various public groups are less compelling than the one he made in January. The only visual aid is an aerial view of the Con-way property.
Asked why in presentations he no longer shows the visionary slides of grand buildings, public plazas and canal streets, Boretz says: “We don’t want people to think we’re locked into it. We’re not. We love the concepts. We think they’re bold and they look terrific. But they’re just concepts right now.”